The Hebridean Way – A 200 mile Scottish Island Hopper

The Hebrides isn’t really a place you hear about much growing up in the states. However, after living here for a few years I began to hear whispers of a beautiful string of islands off the west coast of Scotland that offered white sand beaches, crystal clear waters, and beautiful ocean views. Also home to the Lewis Chessmen which I’d seen at the British Museum many times before in London.

I began doing research on the best way to tackle the route, and of course there was a wonderfully created route that leads you through all of the islands beginning south to north. This is an important note – I almost did this route from north to south, but after going through several websites I started to see people said going north to south would mean for a possible headwind the entire way. I don’t mind a bit of suffering, but this was holiday, so it was an easy choice to reverse my original plan and go south to north with the wind at my back.

Also worth noting that the Hebrides are more religious the mainland of Scotland, which means a good portion of stores aren’t open on Sunday. This is changing as time passes, but best to be aware to plan supplies.

Day 1 Tyndrum to Oban to Barra (56 miles 2500ft elev)

The previous night I had taken the sleeper from Euston after work. The sleeper train always feels like an adventure train for me as I only use it on holidays to the highlands. I don’t ever sleep particularly well as I usually just book a seat and not a bed, but on this trip there were so few people that one of the staff allowed me to sleep on a bed. Now this is the way to do it.

Feeling fairly well rested I awoke to my early stop at Tyndrum which would be a short ride to Oban to catch my ferry to the Hebrides.

A couple hours later I had arrived in Oban. I always like visiting Oban. It’s a gateway to many beautiful islands and local outdoor spots. The town itself has lots of delicious food options and is fun to have a wander.

Once I got into Oban the first thing I did was head to the ferry building to buy my tickets. The tickets to the islands are all heavily subsidized by the government, so transport between all of them was around 30 pounds total. Found that to be very reasonable if you’re not traveling with a car.

As I had a couple hours to kill before the ferry left to Castlebay I naturally had to have a massive Scottish breakfast at the local Whetherspoons just besides the ferry terminal. I generally make it a point to have haggis as much as I possibly can on any Scottish tour. I love the taste and find it especially delicious stuffed in chicken or the haggis flavored crisps they sell around the country.

Haggis tucked under that toast…or was it black pudding?

After a couple cups of tea the time had come to head onto the ferry, so I gathered all my belongins, careful to not forget anything and went out to load up my bike. What I began to realise from this point on is how popular the Hebrides are for cycle touring. I met loads of other cyclists on this trip and this ferry ride over would be only the beginning.

It was a very comfortable journey over to Barra. I spent the majority of it at the front of the boat chatting with a couple from northern England who were motor homing on the isles for a month. I certainly wish I could’ve spent longer. Many folks were heading out to bird watch, drive the quiet roads, or just enjoy and relax. One thing I did notice is that it is very easy to have a luxurious holiday on the Hebrides. I wild camped most of the time, but when I did look for accommodation before I arrived, I was surprised to see how much of it was fairly expensive. They were nice places to stay and eat, but being on a budget I opted for more modest accommodation later in the trip.

The few hour boat ride seemed to pass quickly, and in the distance you could just begin to make out the isles. It almost felt like the intro to Jurassic Park where you could start to make out a green island off in the distance. Very mysterious and beautiful. I was so excited to get off the boat and start exploring them.

Everyone began loading up their bikes and gearing up to head outside once the boat landed at Castlebay.

While I could’ve easily cycled north and had a leisurely evening without much cycling, I decided to cycle as far south as I could, which was to Vatersay. This island was a quiet island. Beautiful, well paved quiet roads flowed around the hills and down towards the beaches. Cycling back through town after visiting the southern tip I passed a house with a piper practicing for the evening.

Continuing on north, I knew I had to visit the famous Barra airport which used the beach as a runway. It was later in the evening so there weren’t any planes landing at this time, but must’ve been quite a site when it did happen.

Barra Airport

Beginning to get late for the evening I headed towards the ferry terminal that I would need to catch the following morning to Eriskay and the Uist isles.

Having done this trip as a training ride for the upcoming North Cape 4000 ride, I brought my summer camping gear and bivvy to test it all out. The isles never get freezing cold in summer from what I could see, however it did drop below 10 at night fairly regularly and I did end up having to wear all my clothes to bed most nights that I bivvied out. Thankfully I did have a nice hooped bivvy in the Terra Nova Jupiter. Bit more comfort and a bit more weight for a bivvy, but I consider it well worth it. I don’t have much interest in sleeping in a standard bivvy with British weather.

Day 2 Barra to Golden Road Isle of Harris (100 miles 3500ft elev)

Early the next morning the first boat left around 7am. It was a bit chilly out so I wore all my clothes to the ferry. It was interesting getting on the ferry at this time as all the school children were getting on as well. Makes sense that these ferries are so heavily subsidized as the islanders can use them daily for getting around.

It was a shorter ferry journey to Eriskay, and once on the other side it was time to look for breakfast. A few miles after the ferry was the Kilbride Cafe which served up a tasty breakfast and great views. Was also a good spot to reconnect with friends and family to let them know I arrived safely and was well.

South and North Uist were interesting spots to cycle through. It was all relatively flat through this section with a couple hills here and there, but as you can see from the elevation posted above, it was smooth going.

The architecture I found to be very uninspiring on North and South Uist. Lots of concrete buildings and houses dotted around the landscape. Every once in awhile you’d get a great view of the ocean though.

Signs of the more religion Hebrides culture

There were some interesting stopping points including the Our Lady of the Isles statue, a few delicious cafes where I found one of the best Victoria sponge cakes I’d ever had, and as you made your way north the landscape became more varied and bumpy.

in North Uist at the cafe where I had the cake, I met a fellow cyclist named David and we began to chat and share stories for the few remaining miles to the ferry. He was on holiday with his family on Harris and popped down to Uist to cycle for the day and then head back. Had a great time chatting with him and sharing information on the Hebrides.

As we were in the queue to head over to Harris I began to have a conversation with a man that would later become a friend that was driving a tuk tuk around Scotland on a tour. He regularly packs his tuk tuk up and travels around different parts of the UK. Great guy with loads of fun stories. You can check him out at Adventures in a Tuk Tuk

Once over to Harris it was a short cycle for David and I before he landed back at his B and B and we said our goodbyes.

Harris was absolutely stunning. I was blown away by the beauty of Harris just within the first few miles of getting off the ferry. Huge mountains, beautiful bays of water and white sand beaches. This looked like a picture perfect spot of the Hebrides.

I took in the views and scenery for a bit, but wanted to hit 100 miles for the day as I was still training for my big ride later in the summer, so carried on towards the Golden Road. From what I read, it’s called the Golden road by the locals because of how much it cost to build it.

Peat farming nearly everywhere around the Hebrides

It certainly was a highlight of my trip as the tarmac was buttery smooth and the views were stunning around every corner. Lots of cute fishing villages and houses nestled in the hills around the area. It’s not a very long section, but it is quite lumpy, so be prepared for a bit of climbing when you do get there.

After finally hitting my mileage goal for the day I found a quiet spot to bivvy on the hilltop for the night.


Day 3 Golden Road to Gearrannan Black Houses (80 miles 2700ft elev)

Today started off a bit slow as I packed up and needed to resupply in Tarbert, the next village down the road, before I began my day of riding. Tarbert was a good spot to resupply, though I didn’t stick around for too long as I had a big day ahead of me and a few things I wanted to see before I stopped for the night at the famous Gearrannan black houses youth hostel.

From Tarbert you’re looking at a pretty solid climb for the next few miles. It felt like the biggest climb of the ride and very well may have been, but boy was it stunning. Incredible views of the bay leading up to the climb just outside Tarbert, and as you turn the corner you can see the climb leading you up up up!

I unfortunately didn’t take many pictures of this area, but it was a great spot to cycle through. Not many villages along the way and mostly quiet roads. After you crest this hill section there’s a cracking downhill for a good while and then it was off to Great Bernera to get a view of the iron age house and Bosta Beach.

The weather was generally cloudy on this day with intermittent showers, but as I began to move further north the weather kicked up a bit and I was getting to the point where my water proof cycle gloves were not so waterproof and getting a bit chilly due to the wind.

I finally made it to Bosta Beach which is at the end of Great Bernera. Very good cycling through here and I passed a town called Breacleit which had a well stocked convenience store where I packed up on more chocolate bars and some lunch items. Very friendly couple of teenagers that were looking over the store while their parents were off getting lunch.

The iron age fort and beach were very beautiful. It feels like another world out here, and when you see structures like this you start to imagine what life would’ve been like thousands of years ago for the people that lived here.

Next up as I head towards my night stay were the famous Callanish stones. One of Isle of Lewis’ main attractions. These stones were quite impressive. As an American I find it hard to think in thousands of years, but these stones were built sometime in the Neolithic era which was up to 6000 years ago! Hard to get your head around that, but the stones were beautiful, and just imagining, like the iron age structure before, what these people used to do around these stones and how they lived their lives so long ago. Probably not imagining that thousands of years into the future a gingery American cycle tourer would be checking out their hard work. While these are generally a bit more touristy than the other parts of the island it was well worth the visit.

Now on a bit of a time crunch to get to my hostel while I could still pick up my key, I high tailed it to the guest houses. It was bank holiday weekend so I figured it would be pretty rammed as they were popular. I was mostly correct as the main house was full but the room I was to stay in was completely empty. Now that is luxury! I shared the entire house with a couple other women on a trip up and we enjoyed a few friendly chats in the evening and morning.

The Gearrannan black houses were very much worth the visit and stay. Such cool crofting houses, and getting the chance to stay within them for an evening was even more fun. I was lucky that night as the weather had cleared and was able to take a walk around the area. These buildings are right by the ocean with a small beach just below, but if you walk up the cliffs just above the houses you’re in for some stunning views. I spent a couple hours up there snapping pictures and taking in the massive coastline. It was a very special evening spending it up on those cliffs. Something about looking out onto the ocean in a rugged landscape that seems to put all the world’s issues in a quiet corner while you enjoy the moment.

After spending the evening up on that cliff I walked back to the room and got situated for the next morning where I would head to the beach where the legendary Lewis Chessmen were found.

Day 4 Gearrannan Black Houses to Stornoway (71 miles 2300ft elev)

The day started off a bit wetter than I hoped, so it was into all my waterproofs before I was off. The women that were staying in the room opposite had left earlier in the morning to head towards the Callanish Stones. I ended up seeing them on their travels and took a quick snap in the rain before we said our goodbyes.

The road out to Uig sands was enjoyable with a tailwind at my back. Something I knew I had to savour as I’d most likely be facing it on the way back.

The road was two lanes for several miles, then went down into a single lane. It was smooth rolling for quite some time, but this area seemed to be popular with the motor home tourists so there was a bit of stopping and going waiting for them to go past. Otherwise it all felt very remote. This was also a Sunday so my food and drink options were pretty much nonexistent for the whole day until I got into Stornoway that evening.

I thankfully bought a few bars and bits and pieces from the store the day before but I don’t think nearly enough. It’s hard to budget how much you’ll eat when you’re cycling when you’re just starting a tour. I seem to eat somewhere between 4000-6000 calories a day when I’m riding a fully loaded bike for the day, which is a serious amount of food to carry.

I finally reached Uig Sands where the Lewis Chessmen were found. The beach was huge. I hadn’t seen such a large beach on this trip. It’s amazing that a man in 1831 stumbled across this incredible walrus ivory carved chess set on this beach. Apparently they are Norwegian origin. The Hebrides has a very close historical link with the Norwegians as it was raided by the vikings constantly and controlled by them for a couple hundred years after the 9th century.

Uig Sands

From Uig Sands it was a long slog back to the main road I had come from earlier in the day and then over to Stornoway. The wind which was so pleasant on the way out was a difficult headwind on the way back.

There were also several very long climbs that seemed to go on forever once I got back onto the main road towards Stornoway. Perhaps I was just tired and in need of a good meal.

Entering Stornoway felt like a very modern town/city. You feel like you’re quite remote before entering the town, then all of a sudden you’re back in civilization. As it was Sunday most shops were closed, but Stornoway had a few options that were open thankfully. I stopped at a curry house not far from the ferry that I needed to take the next morning and filled up on some tasty naan and curry.

Day 5 Stornoway to Inverness (90 miles 5000ft elev)

Another big day to look forward to, I was up early and on the first ferry to Ullapool. While I was waiting in line I met an American couple that were on an extended tour around the UK and Europe. Such a great way to see the world and meet people. I wish more people did this. I really enjoyed their company while we waited in line, and then would eventually catch back up with them on the other side as we said our goodbyes at Ullapool. You can follow them on their instagram at https://www.instagram.com/adventure_ists/

The ferry ride was very enjoyable and also had the option to buy a full cooked breakfast. Not one to say no to food on a bike tour (or not on a bike tour) I grabbed myself a breakfast and sat at the front of the boat to watch the main island get closer and closer.

We said our goodbyes and I popped over to the local supermarket on Ullapool like I have done in the past on tours and grabbed supplies for my last day. One treat I always look forward to while cycling are those shortbread squares with chocolate chips in them that they sell in the bakery aisle at Tesco. I’m sure it’s a good 400 calories for each biscuit but they give me that extra kick when I need it.

From there it was off on the NC500 for a few miles before I turned inland towards Inverness. The NC500 is such a beautiful route. Such stunning landscapes, coastline and top notch road. Unfortunately, it’s quite busy now so isn’t as pleasant to cycle, but I’m sure if you came during an off peak time it would be perfect. I was fortunate enough to ride the majority of it a year after the route was officially dubbed the NC500 and it was still quiet for cycling during the holiday periods.

The next bit towards Inverness I was familiar with as I’ve ridden it twice before. Good quality, low traffic highland roads. Could ride them all day, and today I did! It’s customary for me to grab a picture at the top of the last big climb before you get near Inverness, so this trip was no different.

From there it was a few miles to Inverness and the iconic bridge, which generally signals to me that my vacation is over. It’s a bittersweet moment ending a holiday in Scotland, but this was another spectacular holiday and I look forward to coming back to the Hebrides again soon to explore them at a slower pace.

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